Eat your vegetables and clean your plate. Don’t be such a picky eater and you can’t have dessert unless you drink all of your milk. These orders from moms and dads have traveled through generations of parents trying to get their kids to eat healthy.
There’s a bit of wisdom here and maybe a few nuggets that can just remain in our collective memories. As many of us have attempted to create more healthy eating habits we have become more mindful of dietary choices and encouragement for our children.
Rather than channeling Grandma by saying you have to finish everything on your plate, parents are approaching their children’s eating habits with a different lens- one that gives options for nutritional choices and establishes a mindset that makes food a part of overall health and not as an enemy or punishment.
Start When They Are Young
Begin early in their lives before unhealthy eating habits even have the chance to take hold. It is easier to get a child to like broccoli before they’ve had the chance to taste chocolate. Steadily introduce healthy foods, especially proteins, fruits, and vegetables, to encourage consuming a balanced diet. In turn, don’t allow children to be exposed to high fat, sugar, and salt in foods like chips or candy as well as any pre-packaged processed food. Avoid caffeinated and sugary drinks while offering milk, water, and sometimes diluted fruit juice.
Kids are visual learners, and eaters. Make food fun by cutting sandwiches with animal-shaped cookie cutters or allow kids to create their own “fruit fondue” with berries and pieces of melon, oranges and apples dipped in Greek yogurt sweetened with honey.
Teach Young Cooks
If children and older kids take an active role in meal preparation then they will be more likely to eat what they have created rather than scoffing at what you made or resorting to something unhealthy.
Engage children to plan special meals like taco night where they can add fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and salsa to lean grilled chicken and corn tortillas. Pizza always seems to be a dinner staple for adults and kids, but rather than ordering a salty, high-fat pizza to be delivered, provide kids with lessons in how to make pizza dough with gluten-free flour and pile on the fresh veggies and cheese.
Meal preparation is also a great time to learn the art of cooking in addition to making the actual foods. Little ones can shred lettuce for salads or scoop berries into bowls for dessert. And as children get older they can actively learn how to stir fry fresh veggies or bake a loaf of nutritious zucchini bread. When children are added rather than removed from the process, they will become attuned to what is healthy without associating "healthy" with the proverbial “yucky.”
You can also teach them to use healthy ingredients in baked goods, starting with baking flour. Baking with gluten-free flour from the time kids are young normalizes this healthy alternative and shows them how to make healthy food taste just as good as the unhealthy stuff.
Picky Eaters are Made, Not Born
It is never inevitable that children become picky eaters. When healthy, delicious varieties of foods are placed in front of them at mealtimes you will learn what they like and what they might not enjoy. As long as they have a continuous, balanced selection of healthy foods with each meal, their tastes will fall into place and eventually develop into broader likes and fewer dislikes.
And if they really don’t like kale don’t force the issue or you will create a much tougher battle with each new food that is introduced. Meals should be relaxing, not a battle of wills about what tastes good and what must be eaten. If food becomes equated with distress or something unpleasant parents can run the risk of eating disorders affecting their children.
Eating healthy food that nourishes our bodies is a necessary part of our lives for both adults and children to learn about and put into practice. Encourage your kids to follow your healthy example and include them in the process of selecting, preparing, and eating. You will then reap the bounty of more than just the meals on your plates.
Want to try making small, healthy substitutes that are hardly noticeable? Start with baking flour that’s healthy. Baking with gluten-free flour eliminates the stress of how to make healthy food taste good, as it holds up against its unhealthy counterparts in both taste and texture.